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Ahead of Schedule: Chicago Cubs Are Serious Contenders Right Now

Anthony Rizzo

Anthony Rizzo

Eyes of the collective Chicago media were surely rolling inside The Cubby Bear, Wrigleyville’s most popular bar, when new Cubs manager Joe Maddon proclaimed, “In my mind’s eye I’m going to be talking playoffs this year,” at his introductory press conference.

Maddon then later hailed for the nearest bartender and offered to buy the first round of drinks for all the media present, “A shot and a beer…That’s the Hazleton Way.”

Related: Joe Maddon's Arrival Signals Next Step in Chicago Cubs' Resurgence

That press conference was last November. Fast forward to today, where the Cubs at 67-49, have the fourth-best record in baseball, third best in the National League, and an 86 percent chance of making the postseason.

Eyes have stopped rolling.

The Cubs are good — the Cubs are really, really good.

Before July 27, the Cubs were sitting at a respectable record of 51-46, a record that every Cubs fan was praying for…in 2016 or even ‘17. But the post All-Star break Cubs were coming back down to earth it seemed, back to what an everyday lineup featuring four rookies should have been, back to realistic expectations.

It was a perfect opportunity to gain ground on the rest of the NL, but the Cubs went 5-8 after the break, all against teams with below .500 records — a stretch that was capped off by getting swept and no-hit at Wrigley Field by the abysmal Phillies. 

It was on Monday, July 27, that many are pointing to as the turning point in the Cubs’ 2015 season. That night rookie third baseman Kris Bryant rocked a two-out, second-pitch slider from then-Rockies closer John Axford to deep left-center field into the renovated Wrigley bleachers for a walk-off, two-run home run.

Since Bryant’s game winner, the Cubs have won 16 of their last 19 games, a stretch that included a 10-game winning streak that was only stopped by an outrageous 15-strikeout performance by White Sox ace Chris Sale on Sunday.

Less than a month ago this team seemed to be heading toward another “next year” mantra. Now, the Cubs are sitting with one of the best records in the majors (67-49), four games up on the Giants for the second NL wild card spot, and nipping at the Pirates’ heels for the top wild card slot.

This begs the question — How did the Cubs become good? I mean, really, this good?

In what seemed to be the perfect offseason storm, Cubs’ president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer made the two biggest moves of their North Side tenure by signing rotation ace and anchor Jon Lester and scooping up baseball mad scientist Maddon to be their team’s manager — making the obvious and purely business decision to fire then-skipper Rick Renteria.

What followed was a series of less celebrated, yet equally significant offseason moves: acquiring pitchers Jason Hammel (again) and Jason Motte, catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross, and centerfielder Dexter Fowler.

These kind of moves the Cubs have been making the past several seasons — calculated, not flashy. Calculated, like bringing in pitchers Jake Arrieta, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Lester, Arrieta, and Hammel have all had strong seasons, turning the Cubs’ rotation into one of the NL’s best. The Cubs starters rank first in the NL in strikeouts-per-nine innings (8.57 K/9), second in FIP (3.34) and WHIP (1.15).

Lester, the $155 million man, was shaky at the start, but over the month and a half he has been worth every penny. Since July 1, Lester has started eight games and posted a 1.92 ERA, giving up just 12 earned runs over 56 innings pitched, striking out 63 batters and only walking nine.

Arrieta (2.39 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 0.99 WHIP, 4.2 WAR) has turned himself into a bona-fide ace, giving the Cubs the best one-two pitching punch this side of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw — and forcing Maddon to dodge questions about who he would start between Lester and Arrieta in a one-game, Wild Card playoff. A conundrum Cubs’ managers historically aren't used to.

Hammel (3.10 ERA, 3.41 FIP) couldn’t have picked a better time to have a career year. The six-foot-six righty re-signed with Chicago after being dealt with Jeff Samardzija to Oakland last season in the Addison Russell deal. Hammel’s resurgence has been a welcome surprise for the Cubs, as his current 1.042 WHIP is better than that of Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole, Cole Hamels or even his teammate Lester.

The starters aren’t the only group of Cubs arms that have been revived. The additions of Tommy Hunter, Motte, and revivals of Rondon, Strop, and Justin Grimm give Maddon plenty of weapons to use out of the bullpen in late-game situations. The Cubs’ bullpen ranks in the top four in the NL in ERA (3.24), FIP (3.28), and holds (73), all while not having a traditional go-to closer. Rondon (1.65 ERA, 0.988 WHIP, 21 saves) has been the man of late, but Maddon isn’t afraid to move his guys into different roles, as four different relievers have multiple saves.

No pitching staff is complete without the entire battery, a need the Cubs finally addressed this winter. In acquiring Lester, the Cubs also added his favorite target in veteran catcher Ross and also the free-swinging Montero. Together, the catching duo has provided the needed on-field tools and clubhouse leadership the Cubs’ inexperience and youth require.

Another area the Cubs’ brass addressed was the need for an improved outfield. In comes  Fowler, a plus-defensive centerfielder known for stealing bases and scoring runs, which he has done better than any other Cub in 2015, leading the team in both categories with 17 and 76, respectively.

The Cubs’ conglomerate of veterans and Joe Maddon’s unique managing approach has made the transition for the club’s four rookies in the starting lineup a smooth one.

Top prospect Kris Bryant was making Cubs fans giddy early in the season as he and first baseman Anthony Rizzo were named to the NL All-Star team and participated in Home Run Derby. Bryant finished the first half with 12 home runs, 52 RBIs and an OPS of .858. Since the break, Bryant’s average has dipped to .254 and he’s currently leading the NL in strikeouts, however; Bryant is still showing plate discipline, boasting a .361 on-base percentage and OPS just north of .800.

Rizzo, on the other hand, has been a force all season long, hitting .296/.407/.543 with 23 home runs, 30 doubles, 15 stolen bases, and a .950 OPS. Over the past 19 games, Rizzo has hit .369/.462/.769, with an insane 1.231 OPS, with seven home runs and 17 RBIs.

Where Bryant left off is where rookie catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber has picked up and taken off along with Rizzo. Since his second call up from Triple-A Iowa on July 17, Schwarber has hit .300/.402/.578 with an impressive .980 OPS, seven home runs, 22 runs, and 21 RBIs in 28 games. 

Fellow rookies Russell and Jorge Soler haven’t received the publicity that Bryant and Schwarber have but both have been instrumental in the Cubs’ success. Russell, only 21, has proven that he has the athleticism and raw talent to be a plus defender at short stop, recently winning over the full-time job from the incumbent and two-time All-Star, Starlin Castro.

Castro was thought to be part of the Cubs’ young core, but has sharply declined since last season’s All-Star campaign and has been temporarily moved to a much less prominent role off the bench and spot starting at second base. 

Soler has essentially been learning to play right field as he goes, but has been one of the more reliable bats for Maddon’s daily lineup — especially during the Cubs’ recent surge. Soler is hitting .323/.391/.403, with a .795 OPS, 20 hits and 14 RBIs since July 27.

The unique mix of savvy veterans, second-chance pitchers, rookies playing beyond their age, and Maddon’s savvy has given these Cubs a legitimate chance at making noise this fall. And for the first time since 2008, Cubs fans have a legitimate reason to pack Wrigley Field to the brim.

It’s okay to admit that it feels that baseball is just a little bit more fun when the Cubs are good and Wrigleyville is buzzing, or as Joe Maddon might say, “It’s really groovy, man.”

— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. An avid baseball fan, Rose also takes time to do some play-by-play work for the radio broadcasts of Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider baseball games. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.